You don't have to sing the blues

Date Published: 
October, 2006
Original Author: 
Sandy Moffett
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2006

Music is a ubiquitous presence in most of our lives. From radios and records to iPods and CDs, in homes and offices, in restaurants and stores, from church choirs to MTV videos. When you add to that the power of music to transport us to another time and place, to lift our spirits and to bridge cultural barriers, the lack of attention paid to music at funeral and cemetery services is odd. It's time to modernize your approach to offering families music.

Having been a funeral singer for more than 25 years, I have watched, or rather listened, as the music for memorial services has changed.  Funeral dirges are a thing of the past, and while some traditional songs have stood the test of time, the standard hymns are heard less and less.

In the early days of my involvement in providing funeral music, most of the songs requested were spiritual in nature, even for those families not connected to a church. It was a given that the music would be somewhat solemn and would evoke visions of Heaven or "a better place."

The same is not necessarily true today. As the trend in music moves toward a more contemporary genre, we in the business need to be willing and prepared to accommodate those needs.

I have had some very interesting requests over the years, including "The Indian Love Call," "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" and "I Did It My Way," just to name a few.

The strangest request was from a gentleman who was angry that his wife, Lucille, had died suddenly. Care to take a guess at the song? I was thankful that "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille" was vetoed by the adult children.

One of the most beautiful songs I have been privileged to sing was, "April Autumn," written by a gentleman for his lady love. It must have sealed the deal for her, because they had been married for more than 40 years when he passed away.

In recent years we have been given such treasures as "Go Rest High on That Mountain," "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" and "I Can Only Imagine."

I have been honored to collaborate on a number of funeral-appropriate songs. The most requested, "My Little Angel," is used annually for the Littlest Angel Memorial at Hillcrest Memorial Park & Mortuary. This service is designed to comfort and provide information to families who have lost infants to miscarriage, stillbirth or other causes.

What funeral arrangers can do?
As family service counselors or mortuary managers, please don't be hesitant to offer these types of songs to your families. Some may not know that non-standard options are available to them, but with today's move toward theme funerals, the shift in music is a natural progression.

Having said that, it may be difficult to find and acquire some songs, whether old or new, in the time frame of at-need planning. Is there a way to overcome this difficulty? Yes, at least in properly done preplanning and to a lesser extent in at-need situations.

All mortuaries have access to funeral planning guides. Unfortunately, through extensive discussions with family service counselors, I've learned that most preplanning guides have limited space allotted to musical preferences. Many have a space where people can fill in the name of a preferred vocalist or accompanist and the titles of one or two songs, but that's the extent of it.

As a vocalist, I know there are more details that need to be considered. What questions can you ask to help alleviate this problem?  See below:

Musical questions you should ask when planning a service:
•    Do you have a preferred vocalist and accompanist for the service?
•    Do you have the complete names of your song selections?
•    Do you prefer the original recorded version or a live vocal?
•    Do you have printed or recorded copies of these songs?
•    If there are multiple arrangements of the same song, which do you prefer?
•    Are there specific verses you want included or left out?
•    Are gender changes needed to make the words appropriate?
•    May we refer you to our in-house musicians or a local music store to assist in finding the music you need?
These simple questions take only a few minutes and yet can make a huge difference in the musical outcome of a service.

Sad to say, more than one family service counselor has told me that if the counselor's goal is "making a sale," the process of going through a planning guide just "takes too much time and is not cost effective."

I know both preneed and at-need appointments can be quite time consuming, and if the focus is on getting people in and out, details such as music can be overlooked.

But it's important for you as a staff member who handles arrangements to remember that though the people who walk into your office may be strangers, they quickly come to trust you to guide them as they make these important decisions. The more satisfied they are with those decisions, the more satisfying you will find your job.

If your facility does not have an in-house or contract musician, you can turn to a good quality music store, which will stock not only a large selection of sheet or portfolio music, but in most cases also will have the resources to provide whatever you might need.

If necessary, music not in stock can be ordered, even delivered overnight, though this is quite costly—often $20 to $25 over and above the cost of the music itself.

With today's digital technology, stores have access to technology that allow them to download almost any piece of music still in print.

Hal Leonard, one of today's largest music publishers, offers a digital catalog for the downloading of sheet music. Some software is proprietary; Music Search, for example, can cost $1,000 a year, so smaller stores may choose not to have it available.

Anyone with access to a computer and the internet can use or to locate and purchase both sacred and non-sacred music. Many artists have recorded background accompaniment to their songs so that other vocalists can perform them.

These options, along with a variety of karaoke-type recordings, have made almost any song your clients might select available with just a little bit of planning.

We have chosen to work in this profession because we care about people. Whether we meet with families preneed or at need, we want this time to be as stress free as possible for them.

Helping ensure that all of their wishes are in order, including music that is dear to them, will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.